Reflections On My Time At Stanford’s d.school

I’m reflecting a bit on my time at the Design Thinking Bootcamp at Stanford’s d.school. I plan to follow up this post with my thoughts on the question, “What is design thinking?”

First, I recorded some items on some note cards handed out to us at the end of each day to aid our memory and reduce our many thoughts and experiences down to the essential items of action or questions for further consideration. Here is what I wrote on each card.

Day 1

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

  • Creating an attitude where failure [of new ideas] and disagreement are acceptable and encouraged
  • Rejecting the vanity of requiring omniscience before action can be taken

Day 2

Today, we did this:

  • faced rejection and awkwardness to find complete strangers who were excited to tell us about their experiences and themselves
  • accepted feedback gracefully as an opportunity to improve our offering and refocus on what problem we’re really solving

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

  • Stop worrying about surveys, start speaking directly with our users
  • Focusing on emotions conveyed through story-telling
  • Emphasize breakthrough solutions, not incremental improvements

A question I still have:

  1. What’s the best way to break the ice with a user?
  2. How to know what experiences matter before the problem is known?
  3. When to abandon an interview versus dig deeper?
  4. How long does this process take to cycle through to a solution?

Day 3

Today, we did this:

  • Built low-resolution prototypes
  • Took them into the field and used them as excuses to have conversations with strangers about feelings

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

find reasonable excuses to have deeply personal discussions with our customers

A question I still have:

  1. How do I identify the right problem to work on?
  2. Who is going to help me with this?
  3. How often should we be doing this (design thinking work)?
  4. How long will it take to reach a conclusion?

Now that I’ve shared some of my daily reflections, I want to make some notes about my overall impressions and reflections of the experience.

As I discussed with one of the coaches at the d.school, I believe we are standing on a “burning platform” in our business due to technological and competitive dynamics and it’s imperative we take these risks seriously by thinking about radically different ways of doing business, up to and including finding a completely different business to compete in. Therefore, I had one over-riding goal in attending the Design Thinking Bootcamp: gain a toolset that would help our organization think about the challenge we face differently than we think about it now, and design a radical solution.

Along with that larger goal came many smaller goals about specific areas of our existing business where we perceive an opportunity to radically innovate.

Going into the program, I thought that the program was going to mostly revolve around these specific business challenges and I would be working, almost one-on-one, with design thinking coaches to learn how to apply design thinking to our challenge. I imagined that what I was primarily gaining was an individual insight that I could hopefully share or train our larger organization on as needed when I went back to base.

I had done some research ahead of time and was aware of some of the things we’d be doing in the course of the program:

  • going out into the field to do interviews with “users”
  • working on a design challenge for a sponsoring major corporation
  • doing team-based thinking games to explore different aspects of design thinking

I was apprehensive (in a “good” way) about the interviewing because it is one thing from my previous operational management experience I liked least or felt least comfortable with– actually talking with our customers. Most of my interactions with customers were defensive in nature, trying to calm down someone we had pissed off through process failure or other failure to live up to their expectations or our commitments. I didn’t have much experience or confidence in just talking to people to try to gather insights about how to make business better in a proactive sense. This was a skillset I very much wanted to gain and was ready to do uncomfortable things to master.

Another thing I was concerned about on a personal level was sustaining my energy throughout the program, especially when considering the suggestion that food might be hard to come by. Some of the early material I received in preparation for the week seemed to imply that meals would be light and limited and we’d often be on our own. The Wolf was concerned for me, and the first question she asked when I checked in after Day 1 was “Are they giving you enough to eat?”

I am happy to report that the experience was much higher touch than I would’ve thought. We were fed ENDLESSLY– breakfast, lunch and dinner with oversupplied snack stations throughout the day and dessert offered at lunch and dinner. The food was high quality and diverse from a local catering operation and the snacks were gourmand. I never went hungry and it was clear the program coordinators put a lot of time and attention into this specific detail, not to mention all the others. “Class sizes” were small, typically 1 coach for 5 team members, plus other support staff and coordinators. We had a group dinner scheduled in San Francisco one night and had nice tour buses to shuttle us back and forth when we went out into the field. Overall, it was an extremely comfortable experience from a material standpoint.

The instructors were amazingly high energy and genuinely interested in their students and their learning. That was actually one of the things that was most challenging for me. Design thinking seems to require a lot of emotional energy, and by the time I got home I was drained. Imagine being super excited about everything for 12 hours a day for 4 days. Imagine sustaining this energy with people you’ve never met (I mean the strangers we interviewed, not just the team members in the program) and conveying the sense that the wacky stories they’re sharing are SUPER exciting and SUPER interesting as you interview them for twenty minutes at a time.

Maybe some people can sustain that for weeks, months or even their entire lives, but I can’t. I crashed when I got home, hard.

On the Monday after my return I was to begin my Post Program Design Project. The idea was that between 8am and 12pm, Monday through Wednesday, I would attempt a small design project from start to finish: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. There were 2 team calls scheduled for 1 hour at 9am on Tuesday and Wednesday to check in and support one another in creating ideas and processing feedback. Otherwise, in 4 hours each of three days you were expected to interview your own customers/users, define a test user to design for, come up with ideas that might make their life more wonderful, create a crude prototype and then role play using it with more customers/users.

I ended up doing the interviews but found it was a lot more challenging to do when the people in our organization that I asked to assist me weren’t really bought in and didn’t really understand how the approach “works” like the people I had teamed up with at the d.school. The interviews went okay despite that, but when it came to defining, ideating, prototyping, I lost my motivation and decided to “quit” rather than make excuses as to why I couldn’t get my project done.

This is probably the most frustrating part of my experience at the d.school, and the biggest lesson I could learn! It was frustrating for me because they made it quite clear before we left that making excuses and not getting the Post Program work done was for losers– in developing a “bias toward action” it is important to jump right in to trying what you learned in your own business, even if you end up sucking at it or it feels funny. This didn’t seem to give me much room to maneuver once I hit some speed bumps and started wobbling, so I just fell over.

On the other hand, experiencing a painful failure and getting back up on my design thinking bike (as I plan to, anyway) helped me think about the other important principle, which is that failure is okay and is part of learning. I now realize I need to sell what I’ve learned a lot better than I did and can’t assume people will rally around this approach just because the organization sent me off to a training program for a week. I also understand that I CAN do what I thought/think is uncomfortable and speak to real “users”, and I have some confidence in the idea that there are real insights we can gain from that effort if we work diligently and find the right people to design for. My initial failure has been a good reminder of the meta-principle of design thinking, which is that everyone can get better by iterative improvements.

My experience at the d.school was wacky and weird, fun and tiring, engaging and challenging. At one point it felt like being back in kindergarten, making macaroni art and playing make believe as we constructed these goofy prototype scenarios and then played them out with each other, with strangers on the street and for our fellow d.school teammates for feedback and evaluation. In the short time I was there I did not come across any “profound” solutions to burning platform business challenges (my own or others) and I realize I can’t expect that kind of resolution from a week long program or from my amateur tinkering with this new found knowledge. Design thinking isn’t a miraculous process, it’s an innovative process.

I’ve got a bit of travel ahead of me over the next few weeks, so I won’t get an opportunity to “do” much design thinking in the meantime. But it is rooted in my mind now and I am thinking differently than when I left for the training. My plan is to try to identify a lower-difficulty challenge our organization could work on and find a few people who are highly motivated to learn and practice a new approach with me. From there we can further test the principles and hopefully design an implementable solution that will be the tangible evidence of value needed to bring it to a wider organizational audience and signal that it is time to move on to bigger challenges.

What Are Friendships For?

Lately I’ve been wondering, “What are friendships for?” This is something I thought I had a good answer to until recently. Now, I am not so sure.

How I used to make friends

My first “friends” were other toddlers in the Mommy and Me program I attended around 2 years of age. I think the “friendship by circumstance” model did not change for most of my childhood and adolescence. I became friends with whoever was around me, or at least tried to do so. Who my classmates were and who was on my sports teams largely determined who my friends were. There was little intentionality about it.

How did we even identify each other as friends? Probably it was best described as “random”: liked the clothes we were dressed in, or laughed at the same joke, or just kept getting put together by our parents. Who knows for sure? I simply don’t have any tangible memories of these first encounters nor why the friendship stuck afterward. There are probably many friendships that didn’t stick, that I don’t even remember, that I can not compare them to as a result.

What I did with my friends

The things I remember doing with my friends seem trivial looking back. Part of the triviality is because we were children and the antics of children often appear trivial to adults. Part of the triviality is because they were trivial. There was no purpose other than to entertain ourselves for the hours we were together. There was no “productive” end to our get togethers other than to kill some time and keep being friends.

Bike rides around town. Making food and eating snacks. Doing homework together. Listening to music. Playing (video) games. Going on trips, occasionally. Swimming. Playing in the sand at the beach. Much later, playing poker late into the night, or grabbing a burger and a milk shake across town (no, this wasn’t the 50s).

I don’t remember a lot of direct sharing of ideas or philosophies, although this likely happened indirectly in the course of other conversations or embedded in the meta of our choices and behaviors and topics of chitchat. I did not have political friends and did not sit around arguing politics. I hung out with a pretty straight crowd so there was no doping or inebriating, and most of my friends weren’t musical, nor was I, so no jam sessions.

We came together either for a proscribed time (dictated by parents) or until we got bored of not being bored together (when we were older and self-mobile) and that was it.

When my ideas of friendship changed

There were two points at which my ideas of friendship, and how to select friends, changed. The first was attending college. What was the same as before is that the friendship opportunity set was largely dictated by who was in your dorm, at least freshman year, and who was in your classes. Or, if you studied abroad, who was on your trip. Nobody was making friends in the hallways of class.

But one thing that was different then was that you had to be much more intentional to make friends. Some people joined student groups or other social clubs that selected by intent. Even in class, you were mostly there for your own purposes and there were few group projects in lecture hall, so to make a friend you had to make an effort to chat with people you saw in class. And you started meeting more friends of friends, who might be attending different schools or not even attending school but simply living in the area.

The other point was when I entered the business world, and began relocating around the country for career reasons. You come across a lot of people in business, within your organization, amongst your customers, vendors, etc. It requires on the one hand more chance and on the other more intentionality to make friendships happen. People are at work for a reason– to get things done and make a pay check. Not everyone’s looking to plug in to friend networks.

When I started moving around the country, I started uprooting and cutting the cord on existing friend networks. It became more complicated to stay in touch. And I had to be even more intentional about making friends with people in new places. My friendships started being dictated less by circumstances and more by intentionality– what kind of interests did I want to intersect with potential friends on?

Why I’ve become selective about friendships over time

Looking back on a lot of earlier friendships, I have many happy memories, even when I am no longer friends with certain people, but the overriding theme that comes to mind is “waste.” A true waste of time. I was getting nothing done with these people! Just trying not to be bored. But not living with a purpose, and since there was no purpose there was no way for them to be a part of a purpose that I didn’t possess.

I have a lot more purpose in my life now. I’m not perfect, I still waste time, even with my friends. But my life is now largely guided by various purposes with specific goals at different points in time and my friendship intentions have been strongly influenced  by this fact. Now, I select friends who I think share my purpose, or are invested in supporting me as I attempt to live my purpose. It isn’t enough to just “be” with someone, killing time. We are being together for a reason and we’re aware of what we’re working on, either explicitly or in the background as the context of our life and thus our friendship.

I still get contacted from time to time by old friends, who still operate on the “killing time” principle and still want an opportunity to do that. I find I have little patience and even less interest in such outreach. It is not that I judge them or actively dislike them, though there are some people who I think are no longer suitable as friends based upon their habits or values in life. It is more that I see my time as scarce and I don’t want to spend it with people who aren’t actively supporting my purpose.

Where I have been frustrated in friendships– crystalization

In college, I read a book called “Bel Ami” for a course on La Belle Epoque literature. There were a number of ideas buried in Bel Ami, but one that we spent some time analyzing was the concept of crystalization in romantic relationships. The idea is that in every romantic relationship there is an imbalance of power based upon one partner crystalizing some ideal in the other partner and worshipping it. They live to serve this crystalized ideal and lose sight of themselves and their partners humanity. It breeds a sense of neediness that ultimately destabilizes the relationship and destroys it.

It’s an interesting theory, and it may be true of some romantic relationships, but it has never described mine. That being said, I think of it in broad terms when I think of some of my most frustrating friendships, former, current and potential or hoped for. Without getting into the idea of embodying an ideal, I have gotten a sense at times that I want to be friends with a person a lot more than they want to be friends with me. This creates an annoying (for me) instability and ongoing tension that usually resolves itself in the relationship failing completely. I don’t know if this is something other people experience, ie, it’s part of  being human, or if it’s part of my unique psychology. But it drives me nuts when it rears its ugly head!

My current theory of friendship

As my life has changed, my understanding of friendship and what it’s good for has changed. I now think about the principles of friendship as fraught with more meaning than I did in my prior periods of non-intentionality. What follows are some major concepts I find important in friendship today.

Improvement

One of my main purposes in life is to grow, to change, to learn and to get better. I define these things in terms of myself and whatever I believe is my potential or capability. Self-improvement is a theme. I value friendships that help me get better. I also value friendships with people who are clearly trying to do the same. I find I get frustrated with people who are happy with how things are, who are stuck in a rut, or who actively resist change and focus on tradition and the past. I intentionally select for an improvement mindset in my friends and I lose interest in people who either don’t seem to care about it or aren’t making progress.

Loyalty/bond/security

Loyalty isn’t everything, but it is certainly something. I seek to build an intentional community of people and a community doesn’t last long if it can’t support itself.

That being said, I look at loyalty a bit differently than most. When I think of loyalty, I think about the commitment a person makes to their friends not to be by their side without question, but to provide questions and feedback! To me, a friendship that is secure is one in which the friends feel comfortable to point out what could be improved, and how. I expect my friends to be open to feedback and to be willing to give it to me as well. Some of my greatest upsets have been friendships that try to paper over what is obviously not working, or which end abruptly without explanation of what wasn’t working.

Entertainment, relaxation

Of course I enjoy entertainment and I need relaxation. I do think “just hanging out” should be a good enough reason to get together with friends. But whereas in the past I was killing time when doing this, now I see the purpose in “just hanging out” is an opportunity to get a check in, to download what’s been going through one’s mind or what they’ve experienced of life recently, and to have a sounding board for processing troubles, thoughts, concerns or challenges.

I find that getting together to share entertainment and relaxation can often be a jumping off point for these kinds of deeper exchanges.

New ideas

I purposefully select friends who have some different ideas than me. I usually don’t select friends who think the opposite of something I think is a sound truth. I am not looking for a fight or to have what I consider true and valuable assaulted. But I am also not looking for a fellow sportsfan, so to speak, someone who agrees our team is the best team and all the other teams can die and that’s all there is to life. I like to be around people with different experiences, different skills and knowledge, who can introduce me to things I otherwise would never have thought about.

Exposure to good luck and opportunity/serendipity

This is something I’ve come to appreciate only recently, but one purpose to having friends is to be exposed to the luck they bring with them. It could be as simple as inviting you to a get together when you’re otherwise by yourself, or more profound like proposing a mutual excursion across the world. It could be buying you a drink, or buying you a meal, or buying you a gift. It could be making a connection to a person or idea that proves to be enormously valuable to you.

Friends bring with them all kinds of opportunity that can’t be predicted or understood ahead of time. And I think certain people have a higher serendipity curve than others and you can intentionally select for it.

Motivation to achievement and encouragement of the same

I now think that one of the most important aspects of friendship as I understand it now is the motivation friends can provide to greater achievement, and the opportunity they can give to be giving in the same way. It feels really great to help people get what they want from life and having friends who are bought in on you being bought in is a way to achieve that satisfaction.

A friendship built on trust and respect in my mind should lead to a concern with seeing each person achieve what they want to achieve and a sense of being invested in helping them get there.

Inspiration, lifestyle modeling

Taking the idea a step further, selecting friends who are especially good at achieving in some domain or in living the life they want in general is inspirational. It can give us ideas about how great our life can be and it can give us encouragement to make our life the way we want it to be. I try to select friends who are actively striving to get what they want in life, and succeeding, who can model for me what such achievements would like like if I were to do the same.

No one friend has it all

As a closing note, I think it’s important to realize that not every friend has it all. While I hope for some minimum level of competency or capability in each of the areas mentioned, people are unique and the distribution of such qualities is uneven amongst friends, potential and actual. You can get a lot of value out of your friendships even when each of your friends isn’t a superstar in every regard if you’re willing to meet that friend where they happen to be in life.

That being said, friends who don’t come close to some kind of “minimum standard” in some of these areas, or who actively work against my purposes entirely, usually don’t last long in my life.

Some Takeaways From My Time At The D.School

I’m back from Stanford’s d.school and have a few ideas I jotted in my notebook while I was there:

  1. Learn to celebrate failure; watch how you react to it
  2. Let go of your desire to control outcomes; with humans involved, nothing ever goes according to plan
  3. Try things, practice, iterate
  4. Don’t build expense into prototyping; the more it costs, the harder it is to iterate and change and the less you can learn from your failures
  5. Don’t make insight generation complicated
  6. Where is the burning platform? Look for that place and work on the problems involved
  7. Innovation is the outcome of a process, and innovators are the people who do it
  8. The design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test and back again
  9. The answers are not in this building
  10. When empathizing, spend 15% of your time engaging, noticing and following-up and 85% of your time seeking stories
  11. The purpose of your empathy research is to capture emotion; what is it? where does it come from?
  12. Gravitate in your empathizing and your design thinking process between flaring and focusing
  13. When defining, start with an observation, make an inference, then form a hunch that can carry you to insight
  14. Solve one problem at a time
  15. POV essentials: preserve emotion and the individual, use strong language, sensical wording, non-obvious leaps and generate possibilities that lead to problems the team wants to help solve
  16. 5 users are sufficient to capture 85% of usability cases
  17. Tail-end users have explicit needs and better represent the implicit needs of median users
  18. The future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed
  19. Trusting relationships are the foundation of generative work
  20. Learn how things fail before it matters, not when it does
  21. You can only learn by doing, not by planning
  22. Match prototyping resolution to idea certainty to allow yourself to hear the inevitable critical feedback
  23. Testing = empathy; your prototype is your empathy probe
  24. The value is in the user and their emotions, not in the prototype or experience model itself
  25. The goal is to develop empathy with the user, not the make the prototype perfect; seek understanding
  26. All action aims at advancing the frame and the concept towards convergence
  27. What do your users say about the concept? The users’ reactions and excitement indicate proximity to convergence and likely next steps
  28. 3 elements of storytelling: action, emotion and detail
  29. 100% of people who succeed, start
  30. Struggle and learning are complements; there is no learning without struggle, and the more one struggles, the more one has opportunity to learn; you can not master new knowledge from a place of comfort

Some or even many of these are probably difficult to make sense of or place without further context about the design thinking process.

Intro to Design Thinking

I have the privilege of attending the Stanford d.school’s Design Thinking Bootcamp, an opportunity I was turned on to by a friend in the venture capital community. In preparation for the program, attendees were asked to conduct an “Ideation” session at their place of work with other managers and decision-makers in their organization. This is an opportunity to not only get an introduction to the attitudes and tools used in design thinking, but also to begin practicing with these ideas immediately within one’s business as part of the design thinking meta is “a bias toward action.”

Here are some takeaways about thinking creatively and generating ideas in a collaborative environment that I’ve gained so far:

  • Adopt a “Yes, and…” Attitude
  • First generate, then evaluate
  • Don’t just find one idea
  • Think in terms of a specific problem
  • Focus on emotions
  • Use constraints to increase idea volume
  • Use analogous thinking to go some place else
  • Use “QBD” to evaluate ideas
  • Think about the “headline”, not the “article”
  • If it doesn’t get written down, it didn’t happen

More details on each of these ideas, and impressions from my actual ideation sessions, follow:

Adopt a “Yes, and…” Attitude

When people come together to create ideas, they have a habit of seeking to find what is wrong with their collaborators thinking, rather than what is right. The goal in design thinking is to first come up with a lot of ideas, not to find the “right” idea as quickly as possible. A helpful attitude to adopt is “Yes, and…” which means, whenever your collaborators come up with an idea, reply “Yes, and…” and then build off of their idea, either with an additional flourish or iteration, or with another idea you have in mind that their idea has led you to think. Don’t try to make yourself look smart, try to make your partners look brilliant.

First generate, then evaluate

Another intuitive habit most people bring with them to creative sessions is to try to evaluate ideas as fast as they’re generated. No sooner does someone have a new idea than does that person, or a collaborator, try to figure out if the idea “fits” with the constraints of the project. Many ideas that are either excellent on their own, or could lead to an excellent and realizable idea, are tossed out in the instant evaluation before they’ve had a chance to make an impact. Get in the habit of separating the generation of ideas and the thinking through the merits of the ideas generated. Never confuse the two or allow the processes to mingle in your thoughts or practice.

Don’t just find one idea

When you’ve got a problem, you only need ONE solution. And ultimately, you can only implement one solution– time, resources, etc. are scarce. So it’s easy to think the goal is to “just come up with one idea.” But trying to find the right idea means evaluating as you generate, and it also means pre-qualifying your own thinking before you even generate ideas. Your goal in ideation is actually to generate as many ideas as you can, regardless of whether they make sense, actually solve your problem, are feasible, etc. Go for quantity, not quality, when generating ideas.

Think in terms of a specific problem

It helps to come up with ideas when your problem is specific enough to be solved by an idea you come up with. This means thinking in terms of a specific group of people and in terms of a specific change you want to bring about, either an action or a state of mind. A prompt that can help is to frame your problem with this ad lib– “What can we create for… [specific group of people] that makes them/that helps them [choose one] … [a physical action you want them to take, or a state of mind you want them to adopt]?” An example would be, “What can we create for 10 to 12 year old kids that makes them excited to eat vegetables?” The problem is specific– it is about 10 to 12 year old kids, a group of people with distinct qualities. And what the solution provides is also specific– it will generate a feeling of excitement in them in relation to their eating vegetables.

Focus on emotions

You’ve got your problem. It’s important to think of the mental state of the “user” you’re solving for. Almost inevitably, finding a solution will involve focusing on the change in the mental state that is necessary to motivate action. Sometimes, the change in the mental state by itself is the goal, for example, “What can we create for customers who are angry with us that will make them love us and tell all their friends?” Translating the problem during the ideation process into an emotional state creates a valuable constraint (discussed below) for increasing idea volume.

Use constraints to increase idea volume

It is counterintuitive, but putting constraints on your idea process actually allows you to be even more creative because it focuses the mind in specific ways. Some constraints used as examples in the ideation workshop were “Every idea must cost $1 million” or “Every idea must get you in trouble with your boss”. Imagine you actually have a budget constraint– you only have $50,000 to spend on a solution. Coming with the REAL budget as a constraint is likely to limit your thinking because you’ll immediately begin pre-qualifying and evaluating ideas as you try to generate them.

But if you invert the real constraint into an imaginary one where you must SPEND a large sum of money on your idea as a minimum, you will end up with a sense of much more freedom. Later, you can take those high dollar ideas and figure out how to reduce the cost to something that is actually affordable. The inversion process allows you to hurdle over your real constraint which would limit your creativity and therefore your ability to find a real solution.

You could think of arbitrary constraints, simply to inspire creative and offbeat thinking, or you could try inverting real constraints to trick yourself into thinking past them. The d.school profs use the metaphor of the thumb over the garden hose, which forces high pressure jets of water to spray over a larger area versus just using the innate pressure of the hose which tends to dribble out.

Use analogous thinking to go some place else

Another tool for successful ideation is to create analogous situations and imagine how those people or institutions would handle the creation of a solution for your problem. To find analogies, you translate your problem into the emotional state, mentioned earlier. Sometimes it’s easy and obvious, because you already have an emotional change as a condition of your solution. But if you don’t, this can take some creativity in and of itself to figure out what the emotion is you’re searching for. As an example, if your problem was “What can we create for our hiring department that helps them to only hire people who exceed our standards?” the emotional state might be “confidence.”

Once you have your emotional state, you must ask yourself, “What kind of person, group or place is superb at generating this kind of emotion?” Once you have a list of such entities that excel at generating this emotion, you can do an iterative process of asking yourself, “What would X create for… that helps them/that makes them…?”

Now you are in someone else’s shoes, thinking about the world the way they do and you have unlocked an entirely different form of creativity from your own.

Use “QBD” to evaluate ideas

Okay, you’ve got a ton of ideas at this point. Now it’s (finally) time to evaluate them. But you’re not just going to start deciding which are possible and which are insane. Instead, you’re going to use more creativity to evaluate your ideas. You’re going to think about which ideas are Quick, Breakthrough or Delightful.

Quick ideas may not be full or perfect solutions, but they could be reasonably implemented right away and this incremental progress would have an immediate impact– things would get better as far as your problem is concerned. This is an important way of thinking about selecting solutions because often no solution is found in search of a holistic or perfect one, which either doesn’t exist or can’t be accessed in a linear way of thinking. By selecting a Quick solution, you can take steps toward what might be a final, perfect solution and get a win in the meantime.

Breakthrough ideas might not work, but if they did, they’d be a game changer. They’d be an all new way of solving the problem, or they’d give the group who employs them a distinct competitive advantage, or greatly leverage their efforts. Breakthrough ideas help us think about how to shift paradigms and find solutions that don’t just work, but work insanely well.

Delightful ideas are just that– if we implement them, people feel GREAT. And feeling great is an important part of solving problems and making progress in our work or business. When we find Delightful ideas, we find ways to inspire, motivate and energize people that can lead to other creativity or effectiveness that we can’t imagine or anticipate in simply solving the problem.

Think about the “headline”, not the “article”

When generating and sharing ideas, it’s important to think and communicate in terms of the big impact, high level concept of the idea and not get bogged down in the nitty gritty details– that way lies the habit of criticizing, condemning and evaluating before a good idea can take root, or inspire another. The instructors refer to this as thinking about the “headline” and not the “article.” An example would be, “Hire an expert interviewer” versus “Find a person with X years of experience interviewing people, pay them $Y per year, assign them duties of A, B and C, they will report to Z and will be measured in their performance by E, F and G.” You can find any number of things in the article version that might be unrealistic or impractical, if you can even come up with all the necessary details. It is putting the cart before the horse. You first have to come up with the big idea and see how it could lead to a Quick, Breakthrough or Delightful improvement for your problem, and then you can go about fleshing it out and figuring out how to make it practically work.

If it doesn’t get written down, it didn’t happen

This idea is a good practice for any meeting or information-sharing activity of any kind but it seems to be especially relevant to the process of ideation– if you aren’t writing ideas down as you’re coming up with them, they may as well not exist. By the end of a 1hr long ideation session, you might have come up with fifty or sixty different ideas and concepts as a team. Who can remember what those were by the end of it? So it is important to write them down as you go. The instructors recommend using sticky notes and slapping them on the wall as you go, which not only serves to keep things written down and makes it easy to move ideas around as you review and ideate, but the small amount of space necessarily forces one to think in “headline” terms.

Another thing that should be written down, repeatedly, is the prompt of the problem you are trying to solve (“What can we create for…?”) as well as the specific constraints, analogies, etc., that you are bringing to bear on them as you focus your ideation in different ways.

Our experience with ideation as a team

My ideation workshop involved 5 other people in our organization in addition to myself, all group managers or individuals with lead authority at the operating unit level. We split up into 2 teams of three to work through our ideation process.

One takeaway is that collaborative idea generation is FUN. We genuinely had a good time working together to come up with solutions to our organization’s problems. There was a lot of laughter, spirited talking and debate and enthusiasm. Often times a team would race ahead with a prompt or keep working after designated time was up because they were so caught up in their thinking and idea generation.

Another takeaway is that anyone can be creative. Most of the operating managers were selected because they tend to experiment and try new things in their operations, but what really makes them excellent in their roles is that they relentlessly stick to a proven system of processes and procedures. There may have been some fear that people who are really good enforcing a set of orders might not be able to come up with creative new ideas. This just wasn’t the case. They all had a ton of ideas and I think one thing that was clear by the end of the session was that everyone would’ve liked to have selected their individual problem they brought to the group for ideation work when we could only pick one at a time.

A third takeaway is that the trail one follows to arrive at workable solutions often starts in an unpredictable and highly abstract place. It highlighted for us the value of every idea generated, and the importance of separating generation from evaluation. Where you start is rarely where you will end and if you can embrace the idea of accepting all ideas as valuable and disregarding their merit or feasibility at the outset, you can let those ideas unlock all kinds of interesting solutions you otherwise may not have accessed.

Finally, we realized that even when we came up with an idea that we thought was Breakthrough or Delightful, but lacked obvious practical application, we could begin “trimming” and paring down the idea from there to find something we COULD do with it that still tapped into the essence or principle of the original idea. For example, one group came up with the idea of hiring a professional athlete to be a motivational coach to our organization’s managers. We don’t have the budget for that, nor is that athlete necessarily available for hire, but we can think about what kind of qualities we believe he would bring to such a role and look for a person we could hire that can bring those qualities, or the way we could change processes or definitions of roles within the organization to incorporate those values we now realize are essential to helping us solve a known problem. I think of this as “analogizing from the analogy”.

I can see how the ideation process, which we are just being introduced to through this practice work, can add value for all people at all levels of responsibility within our organization. It is inspiring and motivating, it creates the “bias towards action” in the person doing it and it yields real results which can actually make things better for us, our customers and our team. I am sold!

Thoughts on Constructing A Library

I am going to jot a few notes on the subject of library (as in, personal book collection, not edifice) construction that I’ve been considering lately.

When reading stories of intellectual and political figures of the past, such as Thomas Jefferson or Napoleon Bonaparte, I realized that possessing a substantial library of works of interest and fame was part of standard operating procedure for literate men of the past. When I say substantial, I am talking about private collections numbering ten to twenty-thousand individual hardbound volumes, or when traveling, taking one or two trunkloads of books with the traveler to aid in research and study.

It’s a pretty different commitment to book warehousing and travel from having a few shelves of things you’ve read, or grabbing a couple books and stuffing them into your suitcase for an upcoming flight. Even in the age of Kindle, it’s akin to having a multi-gigabyte device dedicated solely to storing your library.

I haven’t kept track of how many books I’ve read so far in my life, and it’s not exactly apples-to-apples to include childhood picture books in the same measure as thousand page social philosophy treatises. But even if you excluded everything I read before age 19 or 20, which is probably the point in my life where I got “serious” about reading and was mostly reading non-fiction for information and analysis rather than fiction to pass the time or have my imagination stimulated (although, like many teenagers, I did manage to consume Atlas Shrugged during this “non-serious” period), I would still feel comfortable saying the number is “thousands”, especially if you include partially read titles. Probably less than five thousand, but definitely more than one thousand.

I don’t have most of those titles in my possession. Over the last seven or eight years, I consumed many works (especially about business, investing or economics) digitally, and over the last two years I have become an active “purger”, selling, donating or simply tossing books I didn’t bother to read, didn’t bother to finish or didn’t think I’d get any additional value out of in owning them. Most of what is on my shelf at home right this moment are either unread-waiting-to-be-read, or read-and-coming-back-to-them titles. I guess you’d call the latter “reference” titles, but I actually have few reference titles and I mean more of the idea of doing a full-reread to see how my understanding and appreciation of what I previously deemed a worthy title has changed as I’ve changed.

I wonder if purging is a good approach for a few reasons. One is that I have a child now, and hope to have more. I like to think I’ve spent a lot of time reading and sorting knowledge contained in books and I’ve wasted my time on many in order to find the few quality gems, the essential titles in some field that can quickly give one a nuanced understanding of the major and minor issues alike in some discipline. This time I’ve invested is a sunk cost, and being able to hand over a ready-culled library of the “classics” and “greatest hits” to my children and grandchildren seems like part of the social capital of our family.

A problem I have with this logic is that I found a lot of these books by exploring specific questions I had prior to reading them. I arrived at the good stuff through a meaningful epistemological journey that probably would not be as valuable or even as coherent as it was if I had leapt straight from my starting inquiry to the most elucidated truth in the best book. I had to fight for the knowledge I came by and do my own hard thinking and analyzing as I went. Handing someone a ready-constructed library of “essential knowledge” lacks context and it also lacks respect for their own curiosity.

Similarly, as the RIE-philosophy of infant care-giving reminds us (I think derived from Montessori), when you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance to discover it himself. There’s something cognitively valuable in the act of discovery that inheriting a library might obviate.

On the other hand, “on the shoulder of giants”… so perhaps my issue will see farther than me if they start not at the starting line, as I did, but far beyond the finish line in another race entirely.

Another problem with purging is that we are quickly losing a sense of literary history and context with the rise of Google and Amazon. With Google, we convince ourselves that anything worth knowing can be easily searched for, and that it isn’t important to understand the source or genesis over time of certain ideas, only what the latest conclusions are. With Amazon, we come to understand the literary universe as being composed of recently published, hot-selling titles (usually rehashes of old ideas, reformulated for the latest audience fad or interest) and a few older works deemed “classics” because they don’t manage to offend anyone. There are literally hundreds of thousands of titles people used to read, adore and consider categorical in their respective field that aren’t in print and that are essentially invisible to modern readers unless you know what to look for. There are also thousands of titles that reflect the losing side in a historical conflict, of ideas or arms or otherwise, that are not considered “truthful” simply because that side lost. Those are perspectives worth thinking about still if one wants to hone one’s critical mind and maintain a level of scientific objectivity in one’s thinking.

So I worry that some of the great stuff I’ve come across, my children will simply not see if I don’t keep it in my library for them. Especially if they are about ideas I think are important and honest, but which end up “losing the battle” during our lifetime and become non-PC. Down the memory hole!

Storing all these books has an economic cost. There is also search costs in looking through them when seeking a title out if they’re too numerous. And while I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on books over the years, I’ve mostly acquired paperbacks. I wonder if these are durable and can stand the test of time.

I am currently not resolved on the question of “To construct a library for myself and my posterity, or not?” One thing I do know, is that there is something wrong with a home (or office!) that contains no books, or that contains only books selected by others and not by oneself, or received for promotional reasons alone. It would be a major mistake to raise children in a place where books weren’t an ever-present part of their surroundings, even if the total quantity and methodology of selection behind the “library” remains in a negotiated state.

A Quick Thought On SEO

I think search engine optimization of websites and web content (ie, site copy, the actual words you write on a website or blog) is ruining the web. Allow me to explain.

SEO requires a site author to adopt a set of practices in sourcing, writing and formatting content that makes that content more easily crawled by a search bot, thus leading to improved search relevancy and higher traffic. The merit of the approach is that more people interested in what your site is about are able to find it. In economics this is called lowering transaction costs, and it leads to gains through efficiency. The entire field of marketing and advertising deals with search efficiency in a theoretical sense– ensuring the maximum number of potential consumers of a product or service are aware of its existence, capable of affording it and able to make use of it.

SEO gimmicks change all the time. This is because people selling SEO services are constantly studying new search engine rules and then coming up with strategies for gaming the intent of the rule to exploit it. As a result, search engine rules change and SEO changes occur in lock step. But some aspects of SEO seem rather hardcoded, due to the nature of non-human agents (search bots) being the driving mechanism of web crawling.

Three major hard structures seem to be present in SEO recommendations no matter the rules. One is the recommendation to pepper one’s site with relevant “keywords” that help a bot quickly catalog a site’s content as part of this or that interest set. Another is to write content with clear subheadings that indicate the logical structure of the content and again provide a kind of mini-keyword set to what is on the page. The final recommendation is to write really short paragraphs, using short sentences and simple words. The idea here is this is “readable”, especially on mobile devices and especially by search bots who might find long arguments and linguistic nuance difficult to parse.

All of these things suck and make for shitty human-read websites.

The worst offenders of keywords write jumbled, nonsensical content strewn with locations, service names, emphatic descriptors and other errata that is literally incomprehensible to a human reader and is only good for a bot. But it ends up on the page, visible to humans, resulting in a confusing mess. The more savvy offenders try to make the keywords seem contextual by purposefully writing the content in such a way that keywords replace the word that might make naturally come to mind in a given place. This content reads like someone is being paid to name-drop or use particular words, that is, it’s jarring.

The use of subheadings breaks up the flow of an essay, article or argument. It rewards the proverbial reader with ADD, who can’t be bothered to follow a train of thought for more than 15 seconds. It demeans the audience by suggesting they need the structure of the message highlighted and flagged lest they lose their way trying to find their own footing. It violates the law of simplicity, adding things that aren’t necessary when so much of good writing comes from taking more and more away.

The blasphemy of the final SEO recommendation should be readily apparent. Read any classical treatise, any philosophical work, anything at all written by a serious thinker, especially long ago. See if you can find many paragraphs shorter than half a page. See if you can find many chapters that don’t contain words you need to look up in a dictionary. In other words, see if you can find any kind of writing that doesn’t require the reader to work hard to get the reward of understanding from the author, an individual who has likely striven even more mightily in his life to be in such a position as to bequeath his knowledge in a text. Now, ask yourself, what kind of quality can we expect from writing whose primary virtues are to be contained in short paragraphs, in shorter sentences and in words a barely educated 10 year old finds himself conversant?

So let it be known, here at A House Rises, we’ll be taking a stand against this SEO nonsense. We will optimize nothing but the power of our ideas and the gloriousness of the writing we use to wield them. We will write for people, not algorithms, and rely on common word of mouth and the virus of impulse to spread our content to the right people at the right time. We’ll write things we are proud of, about things we actually care about, with an authenticity fitting to us and our purpose in sharing our ideas. To hell with the rest of it!

How We Plan To Develop The Confidence To Let Our Children Be Free (#parenting, #childhood, #risk)

A friend of mine once told me that I would not know true terror until I had had a kid. And he didn’t mean that children were terrible or terrifying– he was talking about the sense of dread one carries around being responsible for another human’s life and security. You invest so much time and energy and concern into your child and it seems so very easy for something to go wrong and snuff it out in one awful instant.

That is why I read with interest a blog on “Free Range Kids” that another friend linked me to a few months ago. The premise of the blog is that helicopter parenting and other approaches to child development and risk management are grossly flawed. The author argues that the risks of accidental death, molestation by sexual predators, etc., are overblown and parents tend to do more harm than good in trying to shield their children from such threats rather than raising them to be conscious of the risks and competent to deal with them on their own. It’s another classic example of the intervention versus interdependence mindset.

Reading the blog got me thinking about my own experiences with navigating childhood risk, and how the Wolf and I might approach this subject with our Little Lion and any other issuance in our line. But first, a quick anecdote.

The Wolf and I live near the ocean, and two weeks ago we went down to an area on the water for a morning dog walk. As we passed by the various docks and inlets, we stopped to admire three young boys (probably about age 10 or 11) sitting in small motor dinghy by the shore, clearly about to begin a fishing expedition. The boys were all wearing life jackets and seemed appropriately attired for a somewhat chilly expedition on the water. One boy was working vigorously to start the uncooperative outboard motor while the other two boys chatted and gave him backseat driver advice. It was a beautiful sight!

There were no adults in sight. In fact, on our little walking path there weren’t even any other passersby at this particular moment. While I don’t KNOW that the boys arranged, dressed and transported themselves to their shared outing, it certainly didn’t look like anyone was responsible for the get together but them. And while ten year olds are not toddlers, they’re still quite immature in many ways, but they seemed to be plenty capable to handle the logistics of a fishing trip, the mechanics of motorized water conveyance and the social grace of maintaining a civil and friendly atmosphere in the confined space of a small boat. And they paid attention to safety, wearing their life jackets even on the tranquil waters of the inlet with no scolding adult nearby to remind them.

Such a sight is common where we live. Many young people enjoy surfing, sailing and other water sports and can often be seen biking themselves down to the water and conducting these kinds of outings with limited or no adult supervision. For many water-born children, especially boys, it is something like a rite of passage to either get permission to use the family watercraft, or to be given a small watercraft of one’s own at a certain stage in one’s youth. In fact, it is one of the very special things about living where we live, that this kind of activity is available to young children and that the local culture seems to support it. The harbor patrol stayed in their berths that morning, like many others, as thankfully the neighbors didn’t feel the need to call the cops on a few kids out to have a good time by themselves.

 

The Wolf and I were quite pleased with this entire thing and thought about it as an ideal for our Little Lion to achieve one day as well. We really admired the (unseen) parents for having the good sense and the trust in their children to simply sleep in and let them do their thing! How would children who can go on a fishing trip on their own at age 10 ever become a burden to themselves, their parents or society?

Still, so much could go wrong! The boys could scald themselves with the hot engine and its liquids. They could shred their hand on an exposed propeller. They could get a fish hook in the eye, or topple over into the water and float out to sea. They could get hit by a larger boat. They could get too cold! I’m being facetious, but it is still scary for me on some level to think about the simple things that could go wrong. Then, I started thinking about my own childhood experiences, and those of my parents.

Growing up in the same community, I didn’t spend much time on the waterfront, but I did manage to have an active and independent play life. I spent a lot of time riding my bike around the neighborhood, sometimes with friends nearby and other times by myself. I liked doing “jumps” off the curb, where a driveway sloped up to meet the angled curb in the street. I also liked riding up on steep driveways and then using the momentum to get speed on the way down, often ending in a “jump”. I played “soldier” with neighborhood kids, army crawling over people’s lawns and through their hedges, which they probably didn’t appreciate but we sure thought was a blast.

One of my best friends growing up lived about three miles away from me, in a part of town that was most easily accessed by riding one’s bike through an unpaved semi-wilderness area. Today, that area has an asphalt-paved trail with hundreds of people on it daily, but back then it was dirt (heavily irregular and eroded by rainfall and drought conditions) mixed with tall grass and flowering weeds, strewn with cactus, patrolled by skunks and other odd wildlife and not well traveled by others. Meaning, if you fell or ran into a “bad guy”, it was unlikely anyone would know about it right away. Yet, I made that 3 mile bike ride once a week, sometimes riding home before dark and other times getting picked up by my parents if it got too late. I never had any problems and they always trusted me to be careful.

In another part of town where this semi-wilderness existed, you could ride your bike around dirt jumps and giant puddles created by the high school kids, avoid homeless bums squatting out in the bush and if you wanted to, ride your bike right off a steep cliff into the ocean below. There were no fences or guardrails at the time, although today it is covered with a housing development and a proper, paved and fenced walking trail. My parents never worried I’d become a casualty, and I never heard of anyone else becoming one. The most regretful thing that happened to any young people growing up was a drunk-driving incident on prom night on the paved curve road in town in which these poor kids flipped their vehicle and many fell out and died or had severe brain trauma.

Thinking about my parents, I know Grandpa Lion was a boy scout. Although boy scouts typically go on their camping expeditions in groups, the act of camping in the wilderness itself is basically an invitation to unnecessary risks that don’t exist back in “civilization”. My dad raced dirt bikes, go carts and other motorized contraptions as a child. I don’t know what Grandma Lion did that was risky for a young girl, but I know her brother tells tales of throwing lit firecrackers at other children and shooting pellet guns across his balcony at his friend next door and vice versa. I certainly wouldn’t condone firing pellet guns, even with eye protection, but the point is that young people seemed to do all kinds of dangerous stuff back then and they managed to survive.

 

When the Wolf and I talk about how we hope to handle our anxiety with our Little Lion, a few themes present themselves again and again. First, the goal we have in mind, as mentioned above, is to give him the opportunity to be trusted and provided resources to explore life on his own or with friends and not to create a paradigm of control and “protection”. Second, our plan is to actively look for opportunities to build his knowledge of risk and measure his awareness and responsiveness to it. In other words, building trust in him, and competence to manage risks he will face, will be an ongoing process learned on a case-by-case basis. Finally, we do not feel comfortable just sending him off into the world and seeing what happens but rather, we will observe his level of maturity and personal capability over time and provide him exposure to settings and circumstances, with our supervision, he seems to be ready for and see how he does. If he demonstrates he’s got it, he earns more leniency, and if he demonstrates he is still figuring it out, we will keep working with him on it until both parties can feel secure that the level of responsibility involved is met by and appropriate level of mastery.

That being said, that mastery is always going to be something he will have to create for himself through a bit of his own risk-taking. He can never know HIS limits if he has ever only had the opportunity to deal with OURS. That’s a fact of life we need to be aware of and learn to accept!

Why Do We Write This Blog?

A few months ago a friend asked me why we write this blog. They wanted to know if we thought we were an expert or an authority on the subjects we talk about, and thus felt it appropriate to share our views. It’s a good question that I was thinking more about and had been meaning to turn into a blog post in reply. So, here’s why we write this blog.

Not experts or authorities, but popularizers

While our level of study and experience with the primary subject matter of this blog varies from quite intensive to novice, we don’t see ourselves as experts and don’t believe we have any special authority on the subject. We don’t write about things we’re interested in to try to provide an “official” analysis or to convey the idea that we ought to be listened to just because we know what we know. Instead, our goal is only to popularize the ideas that interest us and that we consider important.

We popularize for three reasons. One, it improves our lives if more people are interested in the things we are interested in. Two, we find talking about the things we’re interested in to be entertaining and thus enjoyable in and of itself. And finally, we think we’re good at popularizing.

In our experience, we are typically the “gateway drug” of various ideas in our friend network. In other words, we are the first point of contact for many of our friends, on many subjects, to first learn of the existence of a particular idea. That isn’t because we’re super smart, or super knowledgeable, or they are the opposite– it’s simply because we happen to have eclectic tastes that are often orthogonal to our friends own cultivated interests. And because we’re passionate about what we believe in and find ourselves talking about such things quite frequently, there are many opportunities for our friends and other people we know to get exposed to our ideas.

We haven’t had an original idea, ever, though we’ve synthesized a few good notions by mashing unrelated concepts together. We’re not trying to create a scientific revolution or move humanity forward with an invention. We’re content to merely spread what we think are good ideas to other people. More importantly, we think there are common logical threads woven through the core principles of our most important ideals such that there is a coherence to being interested in all of them simultaneously. We’re interested in showing more people how subjects seemingly as diverse as economics, politics, philosophy, nutrition, corporate governance, parenting and family formation can all be linked together by common ideas.

Part of our family’s inheritance

If we produce a premium product on this blog in terms of a collection of ideas, experiences and opinions which together are valuable, we can do a lot of “work” in terms of human capital for our family, including our children. We can pass this resource on to them not only in their present intellectual endeavors, but to future generations who may come to know us only by the written record we’ve left behind. This blog will serve as part of the treasure of our family and we hope it will provide compound interest all its own!

A research emporium

We read a lot. We ask a lot of questions. We spend a lot of time thinking about the things we become interested in. And we have limited memory with which to serve all of these activities and thoughts. Our blog is an extension of our accumulated memory on various subjects. What’s more, it’s searchable with an algorithm, and it is open to the public. We enjoy contributing to the collective intelligence of humanity in this small way, particularly our own! We are always amazed to look back on something we’ve written about in the past and go, “Oh, so that’s what we think about that subject!” And it makes it easier to answer people’s questions or have a deeper discussion when we can reference our previous thinking to others by linking them to a blog post.

A tool to aid in concrete thinking

The practice of writing one’s thoughts down, particularly for public consumption, focuses the mind. It requires one be more thoughtful about what is essential to the idea. It demands one hone one’s rhetorical blade. It just produces better thinking over all to go through an idea enough to try to explain it to others. Our ideas always get better when we try to write about them. Better thinking means better doing.

And a tool to aid our writing

Of course, practicing writing one’s thoughts also means practicing one’s writing. We think we make improvements in that area by writing this blog as well.

It’s fun!

We think we’re good writers. And we like our own ideas. And we enjoy humoring ourselves with our own thinking. Even if no one else comes by to look at what we’re doing or gaze in awe at our commanding knowledge on certain subjects, we’ll be entertained by looking back on what we wrote.

Looking Back On The Records Of My Life

I’m going through my personal document archive right now. I have data stretching back to 2007, though most of it clusters around 2009+ which when I started getting “serious” about hoarding data, documents and other bits of intellectual flair about myself. What started off as a simple Spring Cleaning-type exercise in tidying up my digital filing system is instead turning into a philosophical journey to a land of the past self and it’s inviting a lot of questions and thoughts I wasn’t expecting to have, such as…

I’ve got A LOT of information I collected at various times I was attempting to self-educate on topics of interest. For example, I have enough reading material to teach and supply a graduate level course on investing and financial analysis, business management and strategy and basic accounting and corporate finance. I also have collected digital copies of nearly every book and article I’ve read on economics and related sociology and historical topics. It’s essentially a download of my brain on these topics and, given that I feel comfortable with my level of knowledge in these areas, I’ve done a lot of the hard work in gathering up a comprehensive curriculum here which might be of use to a future learner, such as my child.

But will my child want to study these things? Will my Little Lion need to do the kind of painstaking scouring of primary materials, in volume, that I did? Or will my Little Lion learn a lot of the fundamentals by a kind of osmosis being around me, talking about this stuff with me, such that it won’t really be much use to have the archive for personal perusal?

Now that I am done with these materials, they have little value to me personally. It’s nice to imagine I’d dig in here and there for reference or to double-check something, but I haven’t touched this stuff since 2012 when I began collecting it. That’s 5 years! I knew I had it all this time, but I never went looking for it. What are the chances I will look back on it another 5 years from now? Or 20?

I try to live a simple life. I’m not a minimalist in practice, but the people around me would accuse me of such. I am tempted to just delete this stuff wholesale.

When I think about transmitting my book learning to my kin, and I think about the principles of selectivity and simplicity, there are few titles I would like to hand down and say “Read this if you want to be part of the family/have success in your life/grow your mind.” A book like Human Action comes to mind. That’s as close to Required Reading on each of those points as anything I can think of. But a PDF copy of “Investment Topic X”? Or “Economic Subject Y”? I don’t think it is essential to have that all lined up for the next in line.

The modern trend of Big Data promises amazing returns to collecting and analyzing comprehensive data about people’s interests, behaviors, etc. Mostly, it is a false promise in my experience and I think it’s a false promise in looking through my archive as well. Here’s some notes I took in 2010 on some subject. Here is a spreadsheet I built for something in 2011. Here is some list of experiences I wanted to have, or goals I was chasing after. It is the story of my life, the breadcrumbs along the path to whatever my final purpose and meaning is. (It’s amazing how you seem to get an idea in your head early on in your life and just iterate it over and over. I wonder where those ideas come from and why we get fascinated with them?) But what of it? Can’t rehash that part of my life and choose differently, and I am where I am, and it doesn’t offer much predictive value for where I am going unless it is to continue on the path I am on, but then it is inevitable so, again, what of it?

I think about this with my email archiving as well. I have a lot of emails stored up over the year. Conversations on all kinds of topics. Lengthy diatribes about what I think and why. A veritable mind map on a plethora of issues. It’s fun to be able to look back on it from time to time. But really, it is of more value to Google in selling my (anonymized?) data to advertisers than it will ever be to me in providing some kind of meaningful insight or prediction about myself. Mostly it is good for looking up old logins, loyalty program info, or upcoming event or itinerary data. After that, it is the past, and it doesn’t matter.

I have all these photos, too. Ever since I had a web-connected phone, they just started accumulating. A snap here, a photo there. How many have I looked back on even a week or two after I took it? The significance fades, even if the memory is still there. One day I could share with a friend who wants to know about a place I’ve been or an experience I’ve had, or with my Little Lion, to illustrate what life was like before I was a parent. Why? Why does this matter? It is gone. It can’t be gotten back to. What can it tell us? Little, I think.

So, a new habit to inculcate: create a robust, dynamic filing structure for recalling and accessing current data and records of interest, and then have the discipline to purge when these files go “inactive” in my consciousness.

Why I Am Not Doing My Annual Review/Planning Session This Year

Although I have never been a resolution-maker (phony!), I have long-been an annual planner, and since 2014 my efforts have taken an explicitly formal yet evolving shape. Depending on my other priorities and distractions, I typically begin reflecting on my year-past in late December and finish up writing out some thoughts and expectations for the year-coming by mid-January; I then set a calendar reminder to circle back mid-year in June to see how I am doing and recalibrate if necessary. In this way, I have generally made steady progress on a number of annual and life goals over the last three years.

The heart of the process involves the following steps:

  1. Flick through my calendar for the year-past and review major activities logged therein
  2. Sit in quiet and dig into memories of significant experiences and other events not captured on the calendar
  3. Write out an essay-form reflection on these accomplishments and the thoughts and emotions they evoke
  4. Lay out a new set of goals or achievements to be accomplished in the coming year as a list
  5. Write a brief summary of the anticipated path to achieving these goals via specific behaviors, processes and routines in the coming year

To this I added last year the “mind-mapping” practice suggested by a friend, wherein one gets out a blank sheet of paper, writes some words for major categories of life activities (I used Relationships, Career, Wealth, Mind/Body (Health) and Travel/Lifestyle) which are encircled and then additional related words are “bubbled” out from each category in a randomized chain of thought. It creates a neat visual representation of your ideas, especially if you use size to emphasize weight of concern, or can find ways to draw linkages between related ideas on disparate categories. It’s also a lot quicker to scan for meaning than an essay. I found combining this practice with my essay writing practice gave me a more complete picture of my yearly accomplishments.

I found listing out what I had done to be therapeutic. One thing I struggle with is giving myself credit for what I accomplish. I always want more and want to do more, and so it’s easy for me to convince myself I haven’t done enough, even when I have done everything on an arbitrary list! Writing it all down creates a volume of evidence that is hard to ignore: all the trips, all the interactions with friends and family, all the meals planned, the workouts at the gym, the money saved and invested, the skills developed, etc. It’s harder to look at that list and conclude “I didn’t get anything done last year!”

Another interesting aspect of this practice is I have a record I can look back on and see:

  • how long did it take me to accomplish a particular goal?
  • did I remain persistent if I didn’t get it done when I first wanted to?
  • did I decide to give up on a goal and if so, why? (did I realize it wasn’t important?)
  • what themes exist that are consistent across time with regards to goals I have set?
  • how am I “different” or “the same” in what I am trying to accomplish from year to year?

There are some things I have failed to achieve for several years now but which I still desire. There are other things I thought I wanted but decided weren’t important or worth prioritizing at some point along and consciously let them go in order to simplify my life. And there are some things I have been so stupendously efficient with that I’ve made progress each year on another “tier” of related achievements such that I am much farther along in the space of a few years than I would’ve thought when setting out on my first related activity some years ago.

Another reflection and motivation process I considered doing this year was suggested by another friend. Basically, I was to write myself a letter, dated January 1, 2018, which outlined all the different goals I had achieved throughout 2017 with explanations of the processes or routines I used to achieve them. For example, I accomplished X by spending Y minutes every week on Z. The idea is that one can not only consciously envision these tasks as already completed (so you get the sense they can be done) but you have also given yourself the how-to manual you can use to achieve them. It’s like having a crystal ball you didn’t realize you programmed. I really liked this idea and was prepared to implement it.

Somewhere along the line between early December, when I first started outlining my annual review process, and today, nearly at the end of the first month of 2017, I seem to have completely lost my motivation to get any of this done and so I have essentially given up on it!

I have a lot of friends who excel at personal organization, motivation and self-development. Most of these friends now have children of their own, and their reports have been consistent: children will dramatically change your personal productivity. I have to admit I discounted these reports quite a bit. I thought I was even better organized, even more productive, so it wouldn’t affect me, or at least as much or in the ways it affected them.

Simply put, I was wrong. Being extra sleep-deprived has sapped my drive. It’s required me to take more down-time where I do nothing too intense so I can mentally, emotionally and physically recover. Being on-call for my Little Lion has made it harder to focus on activities which require dedicated focus to make progress. In fact, it’s often impossible to even imagine starting such activities lest I get immediately interrupted and feel frustrated in the process. And now and for the foreseeable future, pitching in on tasks the Wolf could normally handle by herself means I divert a significant fraction of “me” time each week toward things other than me. So I am not superman, and my experience here has been quite similar to my friends just as they predicted or said to expect.

But having my Little Lion has also been incredibly motivating in the sense that it’s given me a new, concrete purpose to pursue various activities, from the minute daily upkeep stuff to the big life-planning stuff. And it’s definitely made me more resilient and less prone to complaining or feeling bad for myself; where I couldn’t always see it before, it is now abundantly obvious to me that “no one is coming to the rescue”, and if I don’t do what I have to do, it doesn’t get done and he, the Wolf and myself all suffer for it.

So I don’t think that is what is going on here, though it makes for a convenient and wildly coincidental excuse!

I am still thinking about this so I can’t say anything for sure, but I will take a stab at what I think is going on. I think what’s going on is that I have built a process here that is almost an end unto itself in terms of the energy and investment required to make use of it. It takes too long. It requires too much thought. It encompasses too much potential behavior and activity in the future. It seems to leave little room for spontaneity. It takes away from too much of the “living of life” I’d like to be doing right this very moment. It is, in a word, overwhelming.

This will seem like a tangent but here goes: recently the same friend who was proposing the letter-writing exercise (which is, ironically, probably a dramatic step towards simplifying this process if I did JUST that, rather than adding it to my existing process…) was talking about how he heard Tim Ferriss on one of his podcasts make some remark about how he has kept a nutrition and workout log for himself every single day of his life since he was 16 (or something, I don’t remember… it was a long amount of time). Essentially, Ferriss could pick any day since he was 16 (or whenever!) and tell you exactly what he ate and what workout he did and what weight he managed to lift, if you asked. My friend thought this was an incredible example of discipline, organization and data-gathering.

And truly, it is. But what of it? How is this valuable? What on Earth could Ferriss do with this data besides impress someone like my friend, or scratch some strange “autistic” itch of his with regards to data-fying his own life? How much healthier, more fit, etc., is he than the average health nut or fitness buff because of this practice?

There is a difference between exhaustive and exhausting. I would say this is exhausting. I would say my annual review process has become exhausting. So I can look back at how my goals have changed since 2014. Why besides personal vanity do I think this is valuable? “Oh look at who I was and what I am now!” Some self-help gurus say you should stop comparing yourself to others and only compare yourself to yourself. “Transcend yourself.” If you want to compete, compete against your personal best.

No matter how many times you transcend yourself, you’re still you. You’re still here. Whichever version of yourself you are this very moment, that’s the one you’ve got to work with. You got a leg up on You-Of-A-Year-Ago. Congratulations. One should HOPE one has a leg-up on someone who is a full year behind! What have you done for yourself lately?

I’ve been fighting this battle for a few years now, mostly with myself, and on a number of fronts, this battle of telling myself I should be doing certain things to accomplish certain goals. I tell myself I want to be a “highly productive person”, and I look around and imagine that all HPP have goals, do annual planning routines, etc. Worked fairly well for me up to this point doing it the way I had done it, and I can see people who seem to accomplish even more than I, and I can imagine they’re even more intense about it. So I tell myself to do a little bit more, push a little harder, be a little more consistent. But each effort in that direction seems to be pushing up against my Diminishing Marginal Return boundary, because I am becoming less and less a HPP and more and more a Person-Striving-To-Be-A-HPP in the process.

I’ve been doing this with writing for the last ten years, blogging in particular. I used to write/blog A LOT when I was younger. I felt like I had a lot to say. I really enjoyed hearing myself think. I’d go back and re-read my own material and get a chuckle. Oh, it was good! Then, something happened. I realized a lot of what I was saying had been said before. I realized I wasn’t a professional writer so I was mostly writing for my own amusement. I realized, I had a lot of other stuff I wanted to do besides write my thoughts down somewhere! Writing and blogging slowly became not something I did because I felt motivated and passionate about my writing subject, but a habit I stuck to because I convinced myself it was some integral part of my identity.

My annual planning has taken a similar turn. It is mostly something I am keeping up with to convince myself I am that HPP I think I want to be and can become if only I do things like this. It is not so easy to sit down and do it. It isn’t coming naturally to me. Yes, I am tired right now, but no, I still get a lot of other stuff done despite that, because I want to do those things.

Instead of doing my annual planning process this year, I have decided to write about why I am not doing it. I felt like I needed to give myself permission to let it go, and this is how I chose to do that.